Fishburne sought balance in trying to be like Ike

MOVIES

June 18, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It's certainly one of the great roles of the summer -- Ike Turner, the Svengali who discovered and shaped and then abused Tina Turner and has become the decade's symbol of man's inhumanity to woman. But Laurence Fishburne, who may make himself a major movie star with the performance of his life, wasn't sure up front.

"When I'd tell people I was playing Ike," he remembers, "I'd start hearing the great big bad Ike stories. Ike pulled a gun on so-and-so or Ike slapped this woman or that or Ike cursed out this man or that. But I knew I had to find another side to Ike."

But where to look?

"I looked at the old tapes of Ike and Tina. But Ike wasn't really prominent. You just see him in the background, watching, controlling, but he didn't have that dynamic stage presence. So I had a license to create something."

So Fishburne decided to try and find the Ike "between the lines" of the stories and the book.

"There had to be some charm there, some wit, some fun. That's how he attracted her in the first place, before he began abusing her.

"And he was a genius. He was way ahead of his time. He was the first one to incorporate dance steps into his band's routine and to put a woman out front. From the very start, he knew how to distinguish himself from the others."

But during the heyday of Ike and Tina Turner, Fishburne never listened to the music.

"To me," he recalls, "it was grown-folks' music. I was into the Stones, Jethro Tull, Muddy Waters."

How does one go about playing the man who is about to become the decade's most famous wife beater in a huge movie.

"I tried to find out the way his mind worked and understand the source of his anger. It was actually sort of like the Frankenstein story. He created something, but once he feels he's lost control, he tries to erase it."

Ike even came by one day to check this new dude out.

"He was kind of curious. He looked at me dressed up as him, and just said, 'Do a good job, man.' "

The movie, which involved many scenes of intimate domestic violence, was grueling to make for Fishburne.

"I just had to be very careful not to take it home with me. I had to leave Ike on the set. It wasn't hard, but it was necessary to make that conscious separation at the end of every day."

That he succeeded is evident everywhere, even in the rumors of Oscar nominations that have begun to circulate.

But then it is clearly Fishburne's time. The actor has worked nearly steadily in films since the late '70s, when, as a gangling 14-year-old kid, his dead-on imitation of Mick Jagger convinced Francis Ford Coppola to give him a prominent role in "Apocalypse Now."

But there have been downs, too.

At one point, nearly destitute, he went to a party at the Coppola's. Harry Dean Stanton, the great old character actor, come up to him and handed him an envelope.

"From one working actor to another," Stanton said. When Fishburne got home, he was delighted to find a $100 bill -- that got him through the week.

Slowly working his way up the ladder -- he was in "Death Wish 2," he admits with a rueful tone -- he gradually began to get better and better parts -- films like "King of New York," where he was a TC Beretta-toting drug hit man -- until he truly broke through in John Singleton's "Boyz 'N the Hood," where he played Furious Styles, the father who almost single-handedly saved his son from the drug wars, and "Deep Cover," where he was a DEA agent who went so far under he almost couldn't come back out.

And now Ike.

But in an actor's life, the one certainty is uncertainty.

What's your next job?

"I don't know, man. I'm out of work."

One doubts he'll stay that way long.

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